Continuity and Change

“Continuity and Change” is a historical cliché. If you’ve got a collection of essays on a particular topic, the default title for publication is “Continuity and Change [in time and place].” It’s not quite as bad as the classic student thesis for a compare-and-contrast paper (“there are many similarities and differences between [A and B]”), but it is an attempt to encompass every possible perspective on a particular topic, and consequently doesn’t say very much.

But actually examining the whole question of continuity and change is an exceedingly complex exercise. To what extent do things change, and to what extent do they stay the same? To answer this question takes a great deal of research for any particular topic, and even then debates about it often seem to be divided between those who believe the glass is half empty, and those who believe the glass is half full. I think that historians are often biased towards “change” (just as Jack Hexter favored “splitters” over “lumpers”) – “change” being simply more interesting (and justifying the research!) than continuity. Some historians, though, largely associated with France’s Annales School, favor the study of long-term historical structures over events, which they likened to the waves on the top of the ocean.* So “continuity” does have some fans out there.

And, of course, it depends on the topic. Some things change more quickly or obviously than others. For one topic I’m interested in, English nationhood, I favor “continuity.” This is a minority position in the academy. Under the influence of Marxism, nations were seen as bourgeois constructs, and even if academics weren’t Marxist themselves, they tended to see nationalism as a bad thing. Thus, there was an imperative to view them as invented in the nineteenth century, and then projected onto the past. Nations claim to be very old, but are in fact quite recent – or so the theory goes – and if they aren’t inevitable, then alternate political arrangements become more plausible. This view is not entirely wrong, but not entirely correct either, and certainly not for England. Even on the continent, would-be nation builders could not simply invent nations out of nothing – they had to select things that putative “nationals” already believed about themselves.

But for another topic I’m interested in, religion, I favor change – or at least, I am invested in the idea that Christianity was a genuine novelty when it first appeared. This is not quite a minority position in the academy, but at one point it was: under the influence of Frazer, Christianity was seen as paganism warmed over: Christ was a dying god-king (whose death guaranteed a new cycle of fertility), Christian saints were pagan deities, etc. But following Ronald Hutton, I am convinced that:

quite apart from the opinions of its partisans, Christianity was different in kind from pagan religions of the ancient world, offering to everyone a personal relationship with the one true God and the promise of eternal salvation, and actively proselytized by missionaries. Syncretism is a fact of religious history, of course, and it is clear that Christianity did inherit certain practices from the pagan world in which it arose, such as the influence of one or more schools of Hellenistic philosophy or, starting in the fourth century, the use of candles, incense, altars, or clerical vestments in public worship. Such things are exceptional, however, and far more allegedly “pagan” practices arose, over time, within Christianity itself. If Christianity appears, at certain times and places, to have taken on characteristics of other religions, it is usually because Christianity, as a religion, must provide for certain strong and near-universal human desires. The desire for children is one such, and it is only natural that once Christians accepted that saints wielded intercessory power, they should begin to pray to them for children—the continuity here is in human nature, not in religion.

Thus, I was interested to read a BBC News article: Fairy Tale Origins Thousands of Years Old, Researchers Say. Who is right? Tehrani and Da Silva, following Grimm? Or Lindow?

Fairy tales like Beauty and the Beast can be traced back thousands of years, according to researchers at universities in Durham and Lisbon.

Using techniques normally employed by biologists, academics studied links between stories from around the world and found some had prehistoric roots.

They found some tales were older than the earliest literary records, with one dating back to the Bronze Age.

The stories had been thought to date back to the 16th and 17th Centuries.

Durham University anthropologist Dr Jamie Tehrani, said Jack and the Beanstalk was rooted in a group of stories classified as The Boy Who Stole Ogre’s Treasure, and could be traced back to when Eastern and Western Indo-European languages split more than 5,000 years ago.

Analysis showed Beauty And The Beast and Rumpelstiltskin to be about 4,000 years old.

And a folk tale called The Smith And The Devil, about a blacksmith selling his soul in a pact with the Devil in order to gain supernatural abilities, was estimated to go back 6,000 years to the Bronze Age.

A blacksmith strikes a deal with a malevolent supernatural being, such as the Devil, Death or a genie.

The blacksmith exchanges his soul for the power to weld any materials together.

He then uses this power to stick the villain to an immovable object, such as a tree, to renege on his side of the bargain.

This basic plot is stable throughout the Indo-European speaking world, from India to Scandinavia, according to the research.

The study said this tale could be traced back to the Proto-Indo-European society when metallurgy likely existed and there was archaeological and genetic evidence of massive territorial expansions by nomadic tribes from the Pontic steppe (the northern shores of the Black Sea) between 5,000 and 6,000 years ago.

However, John Lindow, a folklorist at the University of California, Berkeley, casts doubt on the theory in Science News, saying the Proto-Indo-European vocabulary for working with metal was limited and the word “smith” might not have existed.

If true, that would mean the version of “The Smith and the Devil” used in the study may not be that old, he said.

Dr Tehrani, who worked with folklorist Sara Graca Da Silva, from the New University of Lisbon, said: “We find it pretty remarkable these stories have survived without being written.

“They have been told since before even English, French and Italian existed. They were probably told in an extinct Indo-European language.”

In the 19th Century, authors the Brothers Grimm believed many of the fairy tales they popularised, including Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel and Snow White, were rooted in a shared cultural history dating back to the birth of the Indo-European language family.

Later thinkers challenged that view, saying some stories were much younger and had been passed into oral tradition, having first been written down by writers from the 16th and 17th Centuries.

Dr Jamie Tehrani said: “We can come firmly down on the side of Wilhelm Grimm.

“Some of these stories go back much further than the earliest literary record and indeed further back than Classical mythology – some versions of these stories appear in Latin and Greek texts – but our findings suggest they are much older than that.”

The study, which was published in the Royal Society Open Science journal, employed phylogenetic methods to investigate the relationships between population histories and cultural phenomena, such as languages, marriage practices, political institutions, material culture and music.

It also used a “tree” of Indo-European languages to trace the descent of shared tales to see how far they could be demonstrated to go back in time.

Dr Tehrani explained: “We used a toolkit that we borrowed from evolutionary biology called phylogenetic comparative methods. This enables you to reconstruct the past in the absence of physical evidence.

“We’ve excavated information about our story-telling history, using information that’s been preserved through the mechanism of inheritance, so in that sense they embody their own history.

This looks promising. Rather than take (often superficial) similarities and offer these as conclusive proof of transmission, as Frazer did, the researchers seem to have offered further linguistic and genetic evidence as they reconstruct the past.

The debate continues…

* The French expression was longue durée (vs. histoire evenementielle). I was amused to discover the package below for sale in the local Publix. The Annales School lives!